Kettlebell Swings: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Kettlebell swings. Done well they epitomize the perfect balance between power and grace. Done less well they look like a lot of work by a bunch of unrelated and uncooperative parts. Good swings have very little to do with the kettlebell and everything to do with the hips. Bad ones seem to only be about the kettlebell.
Now the best way to learn a good kettlebell swing is from its foundation. And that includes good mobility and stability. It’s not about the exercise. It’s about the movement the exercise is improving. At StrongFirst kettlebell instructor certifications, we spend over 3 hours just on the swing because it is the foundation upon which we build many other lifts. We value its lessons—how to drive power from the hips, distribute load across the system, stabilize your spine during movement and how to get an amazing cardio workout done in no time. If you think that being good at swings is the objective of a kettlebell swing, then you are missing the point. We can chat about that later.
Today’s blog is about perspective and self awareness. You can’t improve what you don’t acknowledge. So we’re going to first look at what can go wrong. What’s the big deal you might be asking? Who cares as long as you sweat? Well, I care. I care because while the swing may not be rocket science, the differences between good and not so good are results. Those that you want—cardiovascular fitness, strong hip drive, power transmission, abs and glutes of steel and strength endurance—versus those you don’t: no results or worse, tweaks, pulls and injury.
This video outlines the eight most common swing errors or faults I see.
In summary, they are:
- Bad set up: rounded back
- Bad set up: squat rather than a hip hinge
- Bad set up: too far away with all the problems that brings
- Sloppy finish
- Squatty swing
- Unpacked shoulders
- Sloppy switch
- Overkill Finish
See anything you recognize? If so, great! We’ve got room for improvement which means that we can boost your results.
Not sure? Here’s your homework. Video yourself from the front and side, starting from your set up to parking the kettlebell. Don’t be shy. Or embarrassed. I regularly do this in super slow motion even. Why? Because I’m not always able to know when subtle errors start to emerge. The best time to fix those are early on before I’ve reinforced dodgy patterns. What about if you’ve never touched a kettlebell before? Well, if you haven’t but are thinking about it, then these errors will give you a place where NOT to start. They’ll also give you some criteria to choose an instructor. Again, just because they swing a kettlebell doesn’t mean they are executing a good kettlebell swing. Equipped with your own video, compare it to mine. Check to see if your technique could use some tuning up. I’d be happy to help with that.
Breaking Down the Kettlebell Swing
Now that we’ve know what you should strive to avoid, we can reinforce the building blocks that make up a good, safe and results-driven swing. This isn’t meant as a full on tutorial because some things are just better learned in person and by feel. But I hope it gives you a better understanding of what a hardstyle SFG instructor will be trying to get your body to do and some practical drills on how to get there. Plus if we can improve your safety with just one technique tweak, it was worth it’s weight in gold.
Neutral Spine. Allowing anything other than a neutral spine is a recipe for disaster. From chicken necking, to rounded shoulders, to tucking in your tailbone to hyperextending your lower back…these unsafe practices will not only likely get you hurt they’ll limit your results.
Stand against a wall with your heels, glutes, mid-back and head touching (or use a stick against your head, middle back and top of your glutes). This is your neutral spine. When we say straight back, this is what we mean—you maintain the three natural curvatures of your spine—and this alignment from your pelvis to your head should stay virtually unchanged during your swing—from the set up to putting it down. The exception? It’s allowing your neck to look up slightly at the bottom of the swing. Slightly. Don’t chicken neck. Keeping your back straight (or neutral) isn’t just me being picky. It’s the difference in you getting the result from the swing while staying safe. Don’t do it, don’t let your trainer not correct you or others. Demand more for yourself.
Packed Shoulders. Letting your arms hand long and loose will yank at your rotator cuff, change the arc of the kettlebell and put the mechanical advantage of the swing on the wrong muscles – usually your back instead of your hips. Is that bad? If you need to ask, put the kettlebells down for now and talk to a qualified trainer.
Along with a neutral spine, packed shoulders are essential to controlling the arc of the kettlebell. Just like a turtle that pulls in it’s head at the threat of danger, your shoulders can retract into their sockets using your lats and other back/shoulder muscles. This is a great thing since it stops the small rotator cuff muscles from pulling with the weight of the kettlebell thereby stopping you from rounding your shoulders. Proud chest everybody. What a great exercise to help undo hours of computer work! Do not let your shoulders unpack throughout your swing—from set up to park. Learn it right from the start.
Hip Hinge. The swing is an exercise of energy projection forward not upward. A very common error is to squat the kettlebell down, rather than pull It back. If you want to squat, then squat! But kettlebell swings are a hip hinge pattern. Right tool for the right job.
As you hinge your hips, they move back and your torso folds forward, but only to a point. You should still be able to read a logo on your tshirt from a front facing mirror—or be ready to attack an opponent in any direction. We are looking for shoulders above hips, hips above knees. If that’s not happening for you, then figure out why. Use a side mirror to check every set up until you brain has learned how to nail it. A good coach will help you get into the right position, from the start so you don’t have to try to fix weird alignment issues mid flight. Note that your knees are bending but only just enough to let your hips move back. Remember—energy drive is forward. Forget what you see in most gyms around town…this is not a squat!
Hip Drive. A common error is pulling on the kettlebell with the arms or trying to bring it forward with the knees. I call that riding the camel. Not only is that an epic waste of energy, it feels about as ridiculous as it looks (visualize Jar Jar Binks from Star Wars Episode 1). No one would chose to swing that way.
Ok so you’ve hinged with a neutral spine and packed shoulders and have gotten the kettlebell off the ground (pulling hard with your lats so that your hands are nicely tucked close to your crotch). Now what? It’s time to drive your heels through the ground (figuratively) and contract your glutes forcefully until you are standing tall. TALL—not just short of tall or leaning back past it. In this top position, your kettlebell will have been projected forward by the force of your hip drive, but because your arms are attached with pack shoulders, it will have floated up to about chest height. No higher. We call this top position the lock. It’s essentially a full tension plank where your glutes are firing hard to squeeze, your abs are braced for a punch, your quads are lifting up your kneecaps and your lats are retracted while keeping your shoulders down away from your ears. Try to wiggle in this position…you can’t. That’s the beauty of a well executed kettlebell swing…it marries safety with performance to deliver results.
Reload. Many students rush the reloading of the glutes and hamstrings by unlocking (see above point). That means that pretty much as soon as the kettlebell hits the top of the swing, they immediately break their hips to pull it down. That’s a timing issue that can throw the arc off and steal your power.
What happens between the top of a swing and the bottom of the next one? I’ll break it down into three parts. Float. Gravity. Hip pull. The first few seconds at the top, we want our kettlebell to float weightlessly just before gravity takes over to pull it down. Now here think of yourself as a guide. Hold your lock (plank) as long as you can, simply letting your arms come down with the kettlebell. When your biceps approximately reach your ribs, then get your hips out of the way by pulling them back. This will ensure that the kettlebell stays high in the upper triangle of your legs giving you the best set up for your next swing. Sure you can actively pull the kettlebell down with your lats, but that’s an overspeed eccentric…different drill. Here, we’re working on the fundamentals.
Parking. Sign of laziness and carelessness? Letting your kettlebell crash on the floor at the end of your set.
My personal pet peeve is a student that crashes the kettlebell down at the end of their set. DON’T DO IT. Your set is not over until you have safely parked the kettlebell on the ground in FULL control. I’ll give you burpees or brussel sprouts or something you do not enjoy to reinforce that point. It is simply LAZY and CARELESS. DON’T BE. Do not practice bad form. If you need to crash it down at the end then do fewer repetitions. Finish each set just as you started. With integrity.
KULT Fitness is the UAE’s only specialized kettlebell and movement training studio. As a StrongFirst Team Leader, appointed by Pavel Tsatsouline himself, I am honored and fortunate to travel the globe as part of the leadership team to share my passion for kettlebell training and how it improves movement quality, strength and fitness. I was put on this earth to help others so whether I’m training SFG instructors, athletes, fitness enthusiasts or exercise newcomers, every chance I get to help you get more out of life through fitness is an opportunity I will enthusiastically pursue. If you would like to explore what kettlebell training can do for your fitness or want to improve your technique get in touch with me at email@example.com. I’m here to help.
Publicity is Publicity Right?
Love it or hate it, media is here to stay. And as the CEO, Head of Marketing, Sales Director, Accountant, Writer, Designer, Web Master, Trainer, Coach and Cleaner of a new business, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to be featured in a special sports edition of a locally produced magazine. I’ll admit that I was disappointed when they wanted me for ice hockey and not kettlebells. Sure I play hockey, but my livelihood and passion is fitness coaching with the “iron balls with handles”. But publicity is publicity right?
Well that’s sort of what I thought. The photo shoot was really fun. A great photographer coaxing a threatening look after having sprayed me with a liter of water which gave me the giggles. I could barely keep my eyes open for the camera and was overheating in all that gear. Thankfully, like an awesome professional, he got the shot he needed very quickly. Good thing I showered and washed my hair before? Eh, not really.
In addition to a short bio of myself that expanded on my relationship with hockey, I sent a full listing of my fitness and training credentials to the photographer.
Assumption Versus Reality
Now I knew another person was to be highlighted as a kettlebell athlete. Having worked high level marketing for an investment bank for years, I know how THAT game is played and get why it wasn’t to be me. But being the first and only SFG II & CK-FMS in Dubai let alone the Middle East, a female and sole entrepreneur – I figured that one of those facts could have been interesting to the publication. Nope. What the author/editor/whoever glommed onto was Vinyasa, TRX and ACE. All good qualifications, but none of which in the areas that give me as much hockey related benefit as kettlebell training. And this is the problem with media. You don’t ever really know what they are going to say, omit or even infer.
3 Media Takeaways
I went in knowing full well that it was not to be an article about me. It was an expose about women in sport in the UAE. And I’m certainly not completely turned off by the idea of media coverage. This is simply an example of what can happen when you do not have full control over the message that is being broadcast about your or your business. And it applies to any business without a strong Public Relations effort massaging and managing your brand in the public eye.
Since few of us can afford that type of PR effort, here are three takeaway lessons for fitness business owners wanting to market their business through media attention…so you can come a little nearer to the message that YOU want portrayed.
- Media is a business. They may be all “nicey-nicey”, but are not your friend. Don’t overshare.
- The goal of reporting is not to bring facts to readers/listeners, or even the news. It’s to sell advertising space on their platform. You are a tool for them to do that.
- Don’t give them any information you really don’t want focused on. Keep it short, to the point.
ABOUT KULT Fitness
Want to get fitter, stronger, leaner and move better? KULT Fitness can help. With over 19 years of fitness industry experience, coaching young, old, fit, unfit, athletes, couch potatoes, healthy, injured and everything in between, I’ve helped thousands of people change their lives and bodies through fitness. Why kettlebells? Let’s face it, life’s busy. And in properly trained hands, kettlebells deliver one of the most effective and efficient cardio, strength, fat burning and mobility sessions you can get, in less time than traditional workouts.
KULT is Dubai’s only specialized kettlebell training studio. Personally trained by Pavel Tsatsouline of StrongFirst and formerly the RKC, I bring expert kettlebell and bodyweight coaching to personal training students, group training and to instructors looking to prepare for advanced kettlebell certifications.
Martine Kerr, StrongFirst II, Certified Kettlebell Functional Movement Specialist, RKC, CrossFit Level 1 Trainer, Mobility and Kettlebell Trainer, TPI Certified, TRX I and TRX Sports Medicine, Primal Move National Instructor, Vinyasa Yoga, ACE Certified and MBA.
firstname.lastname@example.org | 050 849 1101
Today I expand a little on a topic I spoke of a few weeks ago jump starting your fit lifestyle. It’s not that I’m trying to be redundant, it’s just that food is intimately linked to your body shape and your health. Want to change your body? Then you MUST clean up your eating and embrace healthy eating habits.
Indeed a source of great pleasure for many people. From delicious smells, to evoking good memories, to luxurious textures, to unexpected flavors, to satisfying cravings, to tantalizing tastes, food seems to hold enormous powers of seduction over our ability to make choices that support our goals. But just because it has power doesn’t mean we can’t and shouldn’t resist, or at least maintain the upper hand with regard to our choices. It only has power because we gave it to it in the first place. Good news – we can take it back.
What does eating well mean?
Now I get that the term eating well will mean something different to different people so I will define it here for my purpose (it is my blog after all). Eating well here implies making food choices that support three objectives: a well functioning body (health), a body composition in the desired range (look), and an ability to perform well in my physical pursuits (performance). The intersection of these objectives is where eating well happens – it’s what I call good nutrition. Yes, as goals change so does the profile. But what doesn’t vary is the mindset that food’s primary purpose is to provide the necessary building blocks for a healthy body to support a happy life. So many people become obsessed with how they look that they forget that food is there to nourish above all else. It is a distorted reality when people contemplate surgical procedures and risky diet aids rather than clean up their eating. So what exactly does clean eating entail?
Clean eating basics
Sometimes, it is helpful to define something by what it does NOT include. So eating well does not include mindless eating – or the action of putting food in your mouth without being conscious of it and without needing the nutrition or calories (i.e. snacking at social gatherings when you aren’t hungry comes to mind). It also doesn’t include bingeing of any kind, filling our stomachs with low nutrient-density foods (i.e. drinking sugar-filled juices, convenience snacks, highly processed foods), or repeatedly making unsupportive food choices because we’ve failed to plan in advance. A few more NOTs come to mind, but I think I’ll wait for another post since I’m hoping to present Basics here.
So while we’ll be looking at more detailed views on eating well in future posts, let’s review 3 Basics that everyone can adopt now: know what you eat, drink water, protein and veg at every meal.
- Know what you eat. More than 80% of successful body transformation participants used a food diary to keep track of their food intake. Why? Firstly it’s being mindful. No one truly knows how much they snack, or underestimate their portions or whatever until they write it down. Next, the simple act of having to record what you’ve eaten helps you make better choices later on (or ideally right on the spot). Lastly, you can’t change what you don’t know. Write it ALL down. Or better yet use a smart phone application – there are tons out there. Is it a pain in the butt? It sure is. But remember when you said you’d do anything to change your body…here is a simple, proven strategy that will deliver results. Stop whining and do it.
- Drink water. Your body is made of water and critical metabolic processes are facilitated by water. Plus it fills you up, controls hunger, helps flush out toxins, keeps your skin healthier (it’s the cheapest, effective anti-aging potion out there). Even low levels of dehydration have shown to decrease performance. Drink at least 2L per day of water. Don’t like it? Too bad. Do you like your body more than you dislike water? Find a way to drink it. Add some fresh lemon, orange slices, cucumber or apple slices, maybe some mint. Whatever. Just drink it.
- Protein and veggies at every meal. Paleo folks love me for this, but it’s really not so much about wanting you to eat more protein for the sake of it – it’s about the fact that protein takes more time to digest so it keeps you fuller and bodies use proteins as building blocks. Keep portions the size of your palm. Veggies are all about high nutrition, low calorie options. The more veggies you eat, you get fantastic nutritional bang for your buck, while leaving a little less room for higher calorie carbohydrates like grains and legumes. Shoot for at least 2 servings of veggies with every meal – yes, breakfast too (I had broccoli and mushrooms in my omelette this morning).
Decide if changing your body is important. Decide if the eating habits you may be teaching your children is important. If they are, then act. If not, then don’t feign surprise when your body stays the same or things get worse. The best time to start eating well was likely some time ago. But that’s ok since the next best time to start is right now.
If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.
With few exceptions, most successful body transformations started with a want: a better body (or at least a better shaped one), more energy, a healthier lifestyle, improved health markers, more endurance, a better example to family, increased strength, decreased body fat, better metabolism, shapelier arms, a more toned butt, better sports performance, or whatever. But until that ‘want’ was turned into a specific goal (or set of goals), it remained wishful thinking, lacking the power to help drive behaviors towards making it reality.
The two main difference between a want and a goal are usually an action plan and a deadline. Therefore for those who want to truly change their lives to reap the benefits of a healthier, stronger body the next step is define your ‘destination’ in as much detail as you can, because where you want to be will usually suggest the best ways to get there. Most of us have heard of SMART goals. While many descriptors can be used to define goals as SMART, I’m defining them as Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic and Time Bound. In a nutshell, goals that don’t meet these criteria are too wishy-washy to be of much help – either too vague or broad to know if you are moving closer to them or farther away, are based on subjective evaluations that can change with your moods, aren’t really something you can take daily actions towards, require more work or resources than you can realistically provide and/or are too long-term to be useful at the moment. It doesn’t mean that huge goals aren’t great – because they are. It’s just that to be SMART, it’s usually a good idea to break them down into smaller, shorter-term goals so that you can build momentum, celebrate many successes and enjoy the journey along the way. Changing your body must happen in the context of your life – don’t cheat yourself out of the satisfaction of succeeding at making small changes and being consistent because it’s the small things that we choose to do, and not do, that make a life.
Two notes on specific and measurable
- Unless you can measure something, you know nothing. And you’ll never know when you’ve reached it. Do you want to lose weight? OK – perfectly fine WANT. Now lets break it down: lose weight or body fat? How much (kg, lbs, % body fat)? Lose cm? How many? Fit into a size “Q”? Which brand of what? By when? Eat better? How – X servings of foods, Y servings of water, Maximum #of items allowed (servings of alcohol, unsupportive meals, etc.)? Improve your blood pressure? By how much? You’ve got to take the time to be specific if you want your goals to help you.
- Along the same lines: what are your starting points? Take your current measurements, and BEFORE pictures (trust me, you’ll be so very thankful you did), get the details of how current clothing fit (again with pics is best), what you currently eat (5-7 day detailed food diary), medical reports (blood tests, etc.). Successful transformation started with people knowing exactly where they were and where they wanted to be. Armed with those tools, they could map out the daily ABCs (actions, behaviours and choices) that would bridge that gap.
Stay tuned: Body Reshaping Basics #3 – Eat Well.
Reshaping your body – it’s in your power.
Is it complicated? No, it isn’t. In fact, certain fundamental principles repeatedly find their way in almost every body shaping program out there. There really isn’t anything totally ‘new’ – other than perhaps the marketing BS that goes around trying to make you believe something is new so you buy it (spoken from an extensive marketing background here). The good thing is that we know what to do. The bad thing is that we often choose not to do it. We look and find convenient justifications, excuses and reasons NOT to do the things that we KNOW we should do. And do you know what? After repeating those excuses to yourself long enough, your brain starts to believe them. But that doesn’t mean you are doomed to your existing body. Your brain is an incredibly plastic and wondrous thing: what you teach it to believe works both ways…start taking responsibility, trusting in your strength and ability to commit, to make tough choices, to resist temptations, to work TOWARDS your goals and your brain will start to believe that instead. And once your brain believes it, anything is possible.
So the first basic step in reshaping your body is taking responsibility for your actions and acknowledging that working towards goals isn’t complicated, it just isn’t always easy. Tough choices have to be made as it’s those choices, little ones, big ones, frequent ones, etc. – towards or away from your goal – that add up to your result. No one else is responsible for your success but you. Stop blaming your busy schedule, your lack of personal time, your family responsibilities, your stressful job, your old injuries, your medical conditions, your visiting friends/relatives, your or your family’s food preferences, etc. and acknowledge that YOUR DAILY ABCs (actions, behaviors and choices) are what created the body that you already have and will create the body that you will have. No one else can chose that future body but you. You just need to really want it and believe that you deserve it. And trust me, everyone deserves to live in their best, healthy body.
Stay tuned for Basics #2 – Goals.
Ok I get it. I have a marketing background so I know how it works and have written my fair share of them: headlines that grab your attention and make you want to invest time in reading further – and usually buy something as a result. (Note here that if people did a little less reading and a little more smart training, they wouldn’t need to spend so much time reading). So again I got an email from a reasonably good blog on the best exercises for abs. Now once and for all people, “best” is relative to your goal and even before that, to your ability in performing fundamental movement patterns. While it’s great to look good, the main job of your abs is to help stabilize your spine and effectively transfer energy from your lower and upper body. If you are at all deficient in that you are at risk of incurring an injury due to inefficiencies and compensations. You’re not moving well. Address that BEFORE you focus on how your abs look and you’ll get better, more sustainable results that translate both in better looks and in better performance. Find an FMS in your areas to get help with this. <Rant over.>
So lets say that you’ve now addressed movement dysfunctions and asymmetries and are moving well. You’re likely seeing some improvements in your athletic performance and even lessening of aches and pains as a result. So now we can consider your other goals: appearance or functionality? Let me set the record straight:
- Your abs don’t own the fat that sits on top of them. You can’t decide from where you’ll lose fat by working that area ‘harder’. Work your whole body.
- To see your abs you need to have less fat. To lose fat you need to burn more calories than you eat. Put the fork down and move.
- Nutrition will be at least 80% responsible for any appearance related goals. Eat well.
- Countless crunches will make very little impact to your abdominal appearance or functionality. Your abs DON’T work in isolation so why are you training them that way? Appearance of work doesn’t mean it’s working.
- Feel ‘the burn’ doesn’t mean you’re getting any closer to your goal. You aren’t burning away your ab fat.
- Having ‘strong’ abs isn’t as important as having abs that fire at the right time to stabilize your hips and spine. Train your abs to contract fast (note that this is the same for other stabilizer muscles like your rotator cuff).
- Training smart is the best way to work your abs to perform the job they are designed to do. Full body movements are more effective and efficient in training any body part than any isolation movement if you’re looking for anything but puffy “looks only” muscles. Train smart.
- Doing 5 perfect repetitions will always beat doing 30 crappy ones. If you need more volume, do more sets. Focus on form.
OK, “So what?” you might still be thinking, waiting patiently for what to do for better abs. Here are my top tips for getting better abs (obviously assuming you’ve already addressed movement pattern issues):
Top 7 Tips for Better Abs
- Fix your eating habits.
- Learn how to do a real, full tension plank – and do them anytime, anyplace. 20 seconds while you are making breakfast, lunch and dinner is better than none at all.
- Learn how to do a full push up – and do them anytime, anyplace. 1-5 perfect pushups while you are making breakfast, lunch and dinner is better than none at all.
- Incorporate more full body movements into your training program (deadlift, squat, pull-ups/chin-ups, pushups, mountain climbers, etc.).
- Substitute at least 2 of your regular ‘cardio’ workouts for more intense interval sessions.
- Practice perfect form in all movements. Bad form will just make you better at doing things badly.
- Fix your eating habits.(Yes, I know it’s the same as #1. It’s that important.)
And as a little BONUS dose of reality. Consider this: talking about having better abs, reading magazine articles (or just looking at pictures) about great abs, remembering how your abs used to fit into your clothing before kids, exercising a lot and not seeing any changes and drinking wine/eating pizza or cupcakes…well none of these things are working for you are they. Doing nothing gets nothing. The good news: there’s so much that YOU can do to improve your abs. But you need to actually DO it.